The first View-Master in the late 1930s wasn’t meant to be children’s toy. A Portland, Oregon, organ-maker and photographer named William Gruber was fascinated with a Victorian optical device known as a stereoscope, which created an illusion of 3-D using two side-by-side photographs. Gruber had the idea to mass-produce a portable stereoscope, using new Kodachrome color film, which could be held in one’s hands.

While Gruber was touring the nearby attraction Oregon Caves National Park, he met Harold Graves, president of Sawyer’s Inc., a company that specialized in souvenir picture postcards. Graves asked Gruber why he was using two cameras strapped together, and so Gruber explained the invention he was working on. Graves said he’d love to help produce and sell this idea, but he could only offer Gruber a share of the profits.

Graves and Gruber debuted the View-Master to the public at the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in New York, where it was sold as a souvenir of the event. Afterward, they sold the devices at specialty photography and stationery stores, and the reels depicted scenes from national parks like the Grand Canyon and other gorgeous landscapes around the United States. These early reels, which came in a gold envelope, are dark blue with a gold sticker and what appears to be hand-lettering. In 1941, more than 100,000 stores offered View-Masters.

When the United States entered World War II in 1942, the government commissioned millions of View-Master reels from Sawyer’s to teach servicemen how to identify airplanes and ships within shooting range. These reels tend to be tan with a blue stamp. Because paper was rationed during the war, these came in a variety of front-and-back paper combinations like tan with blue, tan with white, or marbleized.

Thanks to the publicity from the war effort, View-Master was so well known by the mid-'40s, the company didn’t have to advertise them. Before View-Master had a contract with Disney, Sawyer’s would re-create scenes from animated films like “Cinderella” and “Snow White” using 3-D clay tabletop models.

Then, in 1951, Sawyer’s bought out one of View-Master’s competitors, Tru-Vue, and gained the license to all of Walt Disney’s characters. After the agreement, View-Master could use cel-style drawings from the actual films. Suddenly, the device had tremendous kid appeal, and movies and TV characters became a staple of the View-Master line. “Captain Kangaroo,” “Pinky Lee,” the original “Mouseketeers,” Roy Rogers, Flipper, and The Monkees have all been recorded on these reels.

In 1955, View-Master introduced three-reel packets, which often came with storybooks, and began phasing single reels out. That same year, Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California...

During the '50s, when 3-D movies were all the rage, View-Masters would be placed in movie-theater lobbies, loaded with preview reels of upcoming features. Moviegoers would look through the viewers to get a taste of 3-D films like “House of Wax” with Vincent Price, “They Called Him Hondo,” with John Wayne, and “It Came From Outer Space.” Only 29 films were previewed this way, and so these reels are now hot items for collectors. A “House of Wax” reel recently sold for more than $300.

Sawyer’s, View-Master’s parent company, was purchased by General Aniline and Film Corporation, or G.A.F., in 1966. G.A.F. pushed through several View-Master innovations, including the “talking” View-Master and View-Master projectors. The 1969 Apollo moon landing was also depicted in a View-Master reel.

Often failed TV shows would end up as View-Master reels, and these include “The Smith Family” starring Henry Fonda, “Korg 70,000 B.C.,” "Apple’s Way,” “Julia,” and “Isis.” But the cult TV shows of the '60s like “Lost in Space, “The Munsters,” and “The Addams Family” are particularly popular with collectors now.

The View-Master dipped in popularity in the '70s, and around 1980, Arnold Thaler acquired the rights to View-Master, creating the View-Master International company. Later, he purchased the Ideal Toy Company and merged View-Master into that toy line. Tyco Toys purchased the company in 1989, and in 1997, Tyco was swallowed up by Mattel, which branded the View-Master under Fisher-Price. In 1999, the View-Master was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame.

At this point, more than 1.5 billion View-Master reels have been produced. The delightful thing about View-Master is that the size and shape of the reels have never changed, nor has the basic function of the viewer. Each paper reel has 14 slides that create seven images, so any reel in decent condition, no matter how old it is, can be viewed through any View-Master.

Reels made between 1960 and 1963 often have a “blistering” or “bubbling” effect on the paper that occurred in manufacturing. However, the real concern for collectors is if the film is damaged or missing, which can render a reel worthless.

Most View-Masters viewers are remarkably common, and so only the earliest models, like Model A and Model B, have any value on the market. The blue-and-brown Model Bs are particularly scarce. Model D is coveted because it’s the only viewer in the line with a focusing feature. The black Bakelite Model C, however, has proven indestructible, and therefore, is easy to find.

Some collectors focus exclusively on View-Master products. But they often themselves in fierce competition with character collectors who snatch up anything related to Mickey Mouse, Barbie, Batman, or so on.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

20th Century Stereo Viewers

20th Century Stereo Viewers

Remember the View-Master you had as a kid? Check out all the hundreds of cool-looking variations you never knew exi… [read review or visit site]

View-Master Resource

View-Master Resource

While many people think of View-Masters as toys, Eddie Bowers, who runs View-Master Resource, clearly considers the… [read review or visit site]

Museum of Childhood

Museum of Childhood

Embrace your inner child on this website from the Victoria and Albert Museum, filled with high-quality images and i… [read review or visit site]

The Wheelmen

The Wheelmen

This elegant tribute to turn-of-the-century bicycling includes memorabilia, photographs, and an index of 3140 bicyc… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Viewmaster Big Lot ReelDisney Viewmaster Lot 25 Reels Mickey Mouse And More17 Vintage Viewmaster Packages Of 3 Reels To Each Pkg-stories + Travel + StoriesRare Michael Jackson Thriller Viewmaster 3d Boxed+free GiftsSawyers View Master Antique Rare Blue Back Stereoscope Reel Lot Hand LetteredVintage View Master Viewer & 40 Reels Lot Disney Toy Story Barbie Viewmaster !!!2008 Hallmark Fisher Price View-master Ornament Nib (b39)View Master Lot Of Cartoons Vintage 11 Complete Set Disney Bugs Bunny Snow WhiteVintage Lot Of View Master Reel Sets Sci-fi Disney Land Of The Lost Superman +Vintage Viewmaster Sawyers Model D Black Bakelite Stereo 3-d Viewer Works GreatVintage Viewmaster 3d Lot Of 29 Reels Disney Mickey Bambino Flipper Donald Promotional View Master Reel*meopta*czechoslovak Manufacture Of Viewmaster ReelsLot Of 54 Viewmaster Reels Vintage Original 1940's Sawyer's View-master Model B W/ Orig. Box & 8 Reels Vintage Lot 48 View Master Discs Reels Disney Little Black Sambo And MoreVintage Viewmaster Lot 2 Viewers, 60+ Reels Disney Tv SceneryLot Of 34 View Master Reels & Case Disney Tarzam Beauty Toy Story Discovey Herc Fisher Price View Master Despicable Me & Classic Viewer Disney Reel Case LotEarly 1940's Round View-master Black Bakelite Model B (not Warped) Works +reels1995 Disney Toy Story 3d View Master Reels 3 Reels Nrfb Crease On Package TycoView-master Reels- Apollo Moon Landing 1969 B663 Gaf 3d Reels/booklet CompleteView Master Reel Storage Case / Carrying Case - NewLot Of 5 Nib Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments..santa Pez,viewmaster,hot Wheels +Vintage Lot Of 93 View-master Reels, View-master, & Plastic Storage Case18*view Master Reel*meopta*czechoslovakia*nude Girls Vintage 1950 Bake Lite Realist Red Button 3d Stereo Viewer Color Brown +slides/Despicable Me Viewmaster Minion Figure 3d Viewer Reels Case Gift Set Toy New Lot03*view Master Reel*meopta*czechoslovakia*nude GirlsViewmaster Lot Of 36 ReelsVintage Viewmaster Packet/ Disneyland Tomorrowland19*view Master Reel*meopta*czechoslovakia*nude Girls01*view Master Reel*meopta*czechoslovakia*nude GirlsKiss 1970's Viewmaster Reels Pack Go Kiss Crazy In Electrifying 3-d Kiss ConcertVintage Kodak Kodaslide Stereo Viewer I & Slides In BoxLot View Master Stereo Reels Ninja, Queen, Riding Hood, Mario, Christmas, $6m Vintage 1950s View-master 3-dimention Viewer Model E + 12 Photo Reels - BoxedLand Of The Giants Viewmaster Complete Set 3 Reels, Booklet, CoverViewmaster Vintage 60's Six (6) Reel Lot: Batman, Man On The Moon, Modern IsraelViewmaster Set Circa 100 Reels Several States Bakelite Case (damaged)View Master Viewer Lot Of 3 With 10 ReelsVintage Lot Viewmaster Packets 44 Reels - Disney, Mighty Mouse, Snow White More!15*view Master Reel*meopta*czechoslovakia*nude Girls03-08*view Master Reel*meopta*czechoslovakia*nude GirlsVintage 1950s Kodak Kodaslide 1 Stereo Viewer In BoxGaf Vintage Classic Red View-master With Numerous View-master ReelsDisney Handy Manny Dvd Mini Toolbox 2 Talking Tools Viewmaster ReelsVintage 3d Viewmasters View-master Slide Viewer W/ 150+ Cinematic Reels 1980s?Vintage 1940 's Sawyer's View Master In Box With 17 Stereoscopic ReelsVintage Lot Of 85-plus Viewmaster Reels And Plastic Library Storage CaseVintage Toy View Master With Atlanta Coca Cola Soda Pop Coke Color Slide ReelVintage View Master Reels X 17, Inc. Moon Rockets, World Views. Excellent #cr#14*view Master Reel*meopta*czechoslovakia*nude GirlsSawyer's View-master With 34 Reels7 View Master Reels~all Cowboy Stars Gene Autry, Hopalong, Cisco Kid, Roy Rogers17*view Master Reel*meopta*czechoslovakia*nude GirlsLot Of 7 Viewmaster Viewers And 10 Sets Of Reels (30 Total Reels)03-10*view Master Reel*meopta*czechoslovakia*nude GirlsViewmaster 2 Reel Lot, Night Before Christmas & Rudolph Red-nosed ReindeerAntique Underwood & Underwood Sun Sculpture Stereo Viewer With 61 CardsLot Of 16 View Master Reel Sets